Date of Birth: October 28, 1974
Place of Birth: Puerto Rico
Sign: Sun in Scorpio, Moon in Aries
Relations: Father: John; mother: Heart; siblings: River (actor; deceased), Rain (actress), Liberty (actress), Summer (actress); ex-companion: Liv Tyler
BY the time he reached legal US drinking age, actor Joaquin Phoenix had traveled around much of the Western Hemisphere, changed his name (and later changed it back), abandoned a promising acting career (and later resumed it), and been rudely thrust into the national spotlight in the media frenzy over the drug-induced death of his talented brother River. At 21, he delivered a breakthrough performance in Gus Van Sant's blackly satirical To Die For, alongside Nicole Kidman, as the fatally dimwitted youth who commits murder for the love of an ambitious aspiring news anchor, guess who! Almost overnight, Phoenix established himself as one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood, collecting critical kudos for his roles in such films as Inventing the Abbotts and Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, and captivating the tabloid press by romancing the beautiful Liv Tyler.
Lots of showbiz families are eccentric, but it's probably safe to say that the lives of the gifted Phoenix siblings and their hippie parents, Arlyn Dunetz and John Bottom, have followed a more unique course than most. High school dropout John was working as a furniture refinisher in Los Angeles when he picked up a hitchhiking Arlyn, a dissatisfied secretary who'd left her job and husband in Manhattan. The pair decided to seek out life's meaning together and eventually became missionaries for the Children of God religious movement. Their third child and second son, Joaquin, was born after the family's travels had taken them to the U.S. trust territory of Puerto Rico. While in the Caribbean, Arlyn and John learned that the Children of God's chief minister had begun attempting to attract rich disciples by sexual means and decided it was time to get out. They arranged passage back to the States for the family on a freighter carrying a load of Tonka toys and settled in Florida.
Not long thereafter, 4-year-old Joaquin told his parents he wanted to have a name more like those of his elder brother and sister, River and Rainbow. His father, who was out in the yard raking leaves at the time, suggested Leaf, and the new name stuck. In 1979, the family fell on financial hard times, and mom and dad sensed a possible source of relief in the abilities of their multi-talented children, who'd begun singing and dancing on street corners at a young age and had progressed from there to the realm of talent contests. A friend mailed an article that featured the kids to actress Penny Marshall, and the family subsequently received a letter from Paramount inviting them to drop in if they were ever in Los Angeles. Adopting the surname Phoenix to symbolize its latest new direction, the close-knit clan piled into an ancient station wagon with no rear window and drove to California. Soon after their arrival, the kids began to find work with astonishing rapidity, and the family prospered.
Still going by Leaf, Joaquin got his first professional experience in 1982 in an episode of the short-lived CBS television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which featured Richard Dean Anderson, Peter Horton, and brother River among the regular cast. Four years later, at age 12, he made his feature-film debut in a starring role as a precocious youngster in the adventure flick SpaceCamp, appearing alongside Kate Capshaw and Lea Thompson. He had a second starring role the very next year, in Russkies, a youth-oriented riff on the Cold War classic The Russian are Coming, which invited strong reviews as a rebellious teen in the ensemble cast of 1989's Parenthood. Just when everything was coming up roses, however, the strong-willed rising star decided there were no good scripts for actors his age and took an extended sabbatical from acting.
His parents had begun to drift apart, and the home-schooled Joaquin, who'd never had any formal education, decided to see Mexico with his father. It was during his travels south of the border that he formally relinquished Leaf and re-adopted his birth name; as he later explained to one interviewer, "In Spanish, there's ojo, ajo and hoja, words that mean eye, garlic, and leaf in English. I'd be trying to translate, but I'd always mess it up, so people would think my name was garlic or eye." Upon returning to the States a number of months later, the disaffected young actor hung out with his brother and sisters, and was present at L.A.'s trendy Viper Room with River and Rainbow on October 31, 1993, the night River fatally overdosed on cocaine and heroin.
Perversely, the tragic happenstance reintroduced the long-forgotten middle Phoenix to the public consciousness, as television stations across the nation replayed his desperate 911 call, and the increased notoriety jump-started Hollywood interest in his dormant acting career. Many in the media indelicately suggested that Joaquin rushed back into acting to exploit the reverential memory of the critically adored River, but the script for To Die For, his first film since Parenthood, actually sat unread for many months before friends finally convinced him to look it over. Strongly compelled by the raw, unsparing material, he jumped at the offered role, and the film proved a hit. Two years later, he delivered a touchingly authentic performance as the younger of two lovelorn brothers in the coming-of-age drama Inventing the Abbotts. Though the movie was only moderately successful commercially, it did introduce Phoenix to Tyler, with whom he tumbled into love. Later, he claimed she was the first woman he'd ever approached for a date.
In 1998, Phoenix's career resurgence continued with a starring role opposite Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in Return to Paradise. Though the movie drew wildly mixed reviews, Phoenix's performance as a do-gooder unjustly interred in a Malaysian prison was widely praised, and he re-teamed with Vaughn to play a befuddled Lothario at the heart of the noir film Clay Pigeons just months later. Word that Phoenix and Tyler were on the outs surfaced shortly after the latter movie perched on theaters. Recently the young Phoenix has been very successful in choosing great roles; one of them being Gladiator.
2000 The Yards
1998 Clay Pigeons
1998 Inventing the Abbotts
1995 To Die For
1991 Walking the Dog
1984 Murder, She Wrote
1982 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)